The prosecution calls Lillian Pentecost to the stand.
A wave of barely hushed whispers washed over the courtroom. Judge Harman, never one to shy away from a good gavel-banging, let it go unscolded for a change. He couldn’t really blame folks. They’d been packed shoulder to shoulder on the hard courtroom benches for three long days, watching the calendar flip from July to August 1946 while they slogged through the boring nuts and bolts of the prosecution’s case. Waiting for the real drama to start.
The air-conditioning had gone belly-up halfway through day one and the two hundred or so reporters, family members, and assorted lookie-loos were sweating through their stay-pressed as we approached the climax of the city’s murder trial of the moment.
My boss was the climax.
Every eye in the room was on Lillian Pentecost as she made her way to the witness stand, cane thumping out an even rhythm on the courtroom’s hardwood floor. She cut an impressive figure: tall, slender, on the far side of forty, impeccable posture—the better to show off the lines of her gray herringbone suit, white collared blouse, and favorite blood-red tie. Her long chestnut hair was tied up in a labyrinth of braids, her signature streak of gray weaving through like a vein of quicksilver.
I even got her to slap on some makeup. A little eye shadow to bring out the winter-gray of her eyes, blush to add drama to her hawkish profile, and the palest of pink lipsticks to make her mouth seem a tad less severe. The goal was no-nonsense but approachable. A woman you’d trust to tell you who murdered who.
The defense table was an island of stillness in the midst of the tittering. Forest Whitsun, attorney for the defense, turned in his seat to watch Ms. P’s approach, the look on his face steely confidence mixed with a dash of curiosity.
Sure, I’m interested in what she has to say, his expression told the jurors, but only so I can explain to you good people why she’s mistaken.
As for the defendant, you could have propped him outside a cigar shop, he was so wooden. Over the last few days, Barry Sendak had perfected the look of the unjustly accused, woe-is-me. Now, his eyes were blank, lips pressed in a thin line.
I’ll give him this, though—he didn’t look like an arsonist.
Which was a problem.
Not that arsonists come ready-to-wear. But you’d expect someone who was responsible for burning seventeen people alive and leaving hundreds more homeless and grieving to show it on his face.
The Old Testament scribblers had it right. Murder should leave a mark.
But that was wishful thinking.
The jury had spent the last three days looking for a tell and coming up empty. All they saw was a soft pudge of a man who barely topped five feet. Who at thirty was sliding to bald and thought a brush mustache would make up the difference. He had the imposed-upon air of a civil servant, which is exactly what he was, having spent the last ten years as a safety inspector for the New York City Fire Department. He had the watery brown eyes of a doe in the forest, and in his one-size-too-big suit he looked more like prey than predator.
I knew different.
I’d been with him when my boss pointed the finger and Lieutenant Nathan Lazenby, one of the city’s top homicide cops, slapped on the cuffs. Nobody would have mistaken Sendak for prey then.
When I was little, my father made me help him drag a badger out of its burrow near our garden. It had been making waste of our lettuce and my father decided it was time for the thing to go. He stood behind me with a shotgun while I grabbed it by its legs and pulled. It came out spitting and clawing and if my Dad hadn’t been so quick on the trigger, that rodent would have torn my face off.
Sendak had the same look on him when Lazenby led him away. Like he wanted to sink his teeth into Ms. Pentecost’s cheek and give a good yank.
The problem was the jury wasn’t seeing the beast.
The other problem—and the DA had been clear that this was the larger of the two—was that the three tenement buildings Sendak had torched had been in Harlem. The seventeen dead were all Negroes. And if you could find a more lily-white jury, I’d have given you a medal.
The evidence against Sendak was circumstantial. Sure, there was a truckload of it, but if you were hunting hard for reasonable doubt, you could squint and convince yourself it was there and only have a little trouble sleeping at night.
It took some serious arm-pulling and a few scathing editorials in the papers to convince the DA to move forward with the case. Even then, he only pulled the trigger because of a specific thumb pressing down on the scales.
That thumb, along with its four friends, was at that moment laid out on a Bible, its owner swearing to tell the truth, whole and nothing but.
“Put me on the stand,” Ms. Pentecost had told the district attorney. “I promise you I will reveal to the jury just what kind of man Mr. Sendak is.”
Lillian Pentecost didn’t make promises lightly, and the DA knew it. So here we were. Last day, last witness, and the whole ballgame riding on my boss.
Someone once told me that ladies don’t sweat, but I guess I wasn’t much of a lady. I was schvitzing along with the rest of the audience.
From the back row of the courtroom, I watched as Howard Clark, the assistant DA who’d drawn the short straw, began to lead Ms. Pentecost through the whys and wherefores. None of it was news to me, so I took the opportunity to pull out the telegram that had been delivered to our door that morning by an out-of-breath Western Union boy and read it again.
ruby found murdered. circus currently in stoppard, virginia. request professional assistance. —bh
BH was Big Bob Halloway, owner and operator of Hart & Halloway’s Traveling Circus and Sideshow. The telegram included a phone number where he could be reached.
Ms. P had been upstairs putting herself together when it arrived. I hadn’t shown it to her yet. I didn’t want her mind on anything but the task in front of her.
I, on the other hand, had the luxury of letting my mind wander.
Ruby Donner. The Amazing Tattooed Woman.
An impossible landscape of roses and sailor girls, hearts and mermaids and pirate ships, and an emerald-green serpent spiraling up her left leg from toe to thigh and places beyond. The count had been north of three hundred when I’d last seen her.
Four years since then. I wondered what she would have thought of little Willowjean “Will” Parker, dolled up in her going-to-court jacket and skirt so she’d blend in with the rubes in the cheap seats.
The reporters I was sharing the row with had teased me about my outfit.
“You undercover as someone’s secretary?” one wit from the Times had asked. “You can sit on my lap and take dictation anytime, Parker.”
I showed him my favorite finger and quietly suggested he sit on that.
“Aw, don’t be like that, Red. I’m just playing.”
That’s what passes for flirting from the Fourth Estate.
I self-consciously ran my hand through my frizzy red curls. I’d spent the last eight months growing them out, and they were within spitting distance of shoulder-length for the first time since grade school. My fingers got caught in a tangle and I had to yank them free. I glanced around to see if anyone had noticed, but everyone’s eyes were on the witness stand.
I asked her once, “Why do you do it? It’s got to hurt like a bastard.”
She smiled that smile that always gave me shivers.
“Of course it hurts, honey. But no more than anything else.”
There was more to that conversation—one that ended with me making a fool of myself in her bed not long after. But I couldn’t afford to think about that now. Clark was wrapping up and it was time for the real show to begin.
Whitsun approached the witness stand, walking with an easy confidence that probably wasn’t a put-on. He had a reputation as the best defense lawyer in the city. A profile in The New Yorker had dubbed him “the real-life Perry Mason,” and people in the know didn’t disagree.
It didn’t hurt that he could have modeled for the book jackets. Whitsun was six feet of blue eyes, broad shoulders, and a face that was only a few degrees from Gary Cooper. Sure, there were no women on the jury—not that that meant anything—but he gave off that leader-of-the-posse aura. Basically, where he went people liked to follow. My boss’s job was to rip the reins out of his hands.
“Ms. Pentecost. You prefer ‘Ms.,’ is that right?” he asked.
He nodded and smiled, shooting a quick glance at the jury. I wasn’t at the angle to catch it, but I imagine the look translated as: “Too good for marriage or ‘Miss’? Hard to trust a woman like that.”
Out loud he asked, “Who hired you to investigate these fires?”
“No one hired me.”
“No one? You devoted two months of your life out of the kindness of your heart?”
“I decided to look into these incidents because people were dying,” my boss lobbed back.
“Is this the first time you’ve assisted the police without a paying client?”
“It is not.”
“Actually, you’ve made something of a reputation for inserting yourself into high-profile cases, haven’t you?”
“I don’t know if I would say I have a reputation for it.”
“I think you’re being modest. I don’t know if there’s anyone in this city who hasn’t heard your name,” the defense attorney said. “And working on high-profile crimes, that must go a long way toward bringing new clients to your doorstep. Isn’t that right?”
“I don’t quiz my clients on how they may have heard of me,” Ms. P said.
I cringed. Snideness wasn’t going to do her any favors.
“No, I don’t suppose you would,” Whitsun said with just the right amount of good-naturedness and a smile to the jury.
Isn’t she a pill, that smile whispered.
“Needless to say, you’ve made a lot of headlines in this city,” he continued. “The bigger the case, the bigger the headlines. And this case? Whoo-wheee. Pretty big.”
If Whitsun sounded a little too aw-shucks for a big-city lawyer, he meant to. It was part of his act. It got juries to like him. Witnesses did, too.
Until they didn’t.
“How many times did your name appear in print due to your participation in this case?” he asked.
“I can’t say. I did not count.”
“I did.” He ambled over to the defense table and held up a stack of newspapers with a flourish. “Your name appeared in thirty-two articles across fifteen papers and three globally syndicated magazines.”
He held up one paper after another, reading the headlines as he did.
“ ‘Pentecost Hunts Harlem Firebug.’ ‘Lillian Pentecost Combs Scene of Second Blaze.’ ‘Private Detective Pentecost Leads Police to Arsonist.’ ‘Pentecost Brings Firestarter to Justice.’ ”
Whitsun posed there with that last paper, letting the moment stretch out.
“Is there a question?” Ms. P asked with minimal politeness.
“Sure there is.” He tossed the newspapers back on the table. “Do you think you’d have gotten a lot of that press if you hadn’t handed the police a suspect?”
As he asked the question, my boss reached into her jacket pocket and pulled out a silver lighter. She spun it around in her hand and flipped it open.
Judge Harman leaned over. “Ah . . . Ms. Pentecost? I don’t allow smoking in my courtroom.”
“I’m sorry, Your Honor. I don’t smoke,” she said. “As you know, I have multiple sclerosis. Keeping my hands occupied helps with the tremors.”
Not exactly a bald-faced lie but pretty damn close.
“I’ll put it away if it’s distracting,” she added with just the right amount of pleading.
“It’s quite all right, Your Honor,” Whitsun said with a sympathetic smile. “Ms. Pentecost isn’t well. Anything that helps settle her nerves.”
I called Whitsun an impolite name under my breath and the newshounds on either side of me chuckled. There was no opportunity to give the jury a primer on multiple sclerosis. How her body might give out on occasion, but not her brain.
Still, we’d gotten what we wanted.
Ms. P spun the lighter in her hand, flipped it open, flipped it closed. Did it again.
“Could you repeat your question, Mr. Whitsun?” she asked.
“Is it fair to say that, if you hadn’t given the police a suspect, you wouldn’t have gotten nearly so many headlines?”
“Yes, that’s fair to say.” Twist, flip open, flip shut. “And if I hadn’t caught Sendak, he’d have continued putting tenements to the torch.”
A late, weak jab, and Whitsun barreled through it.
“In your previous testimony, you talked a lot about this so-called evidence against Mr. Sendak, but I noticed that you neglected to mention—or Mr. Clark neglected to ask you about—the first time you met my client. When was that?”
“At the scene of the second fire several days after the crime,” Ms. P said. “Ostensibly, he was there to assist the firefighters in making the building safe.”
“ ‘Ostensibly’? Ms. Pentecost, what is my client’s profession?”
“He’s a safety inspector with the New York City Fire Department.”
“Yes!” Whitsun exclaimed. “So it’s not surprising to find my client there, is it? It was his job to be there.”
Whitsun was good. He was taking every opportunity to remind the jury that Ms. Pentecost was a civilian butting in where she didn’t belong.
“What did my client say to you when he saw you walking through the wreckage?” Whitsun asked.
“He asked me to leave.”
Whitsun chuckled. “Oh, I think he did a little more than ask. What were his exact words? And don’t be afraid to use colorful language. We’re all adults here.” He flashed another aw-shucks grin to the jury. They echoed it. My boss didn’t.
“His exact words were ‘Listen, you clumsy bitch. Get out or I’ll have you thrown out.’ ”
Twist, flip open, flip shut.
Whitsun threw his hands in the air in mock horror and turned to his client. From the back row I caught a sliver of Sendak’s abashed grin. I wondered how many times they’d rehearsed that. Bet you it wasn’t as long as I’d rehearsed the lighter trick with Ms. P.
Copyright © 2021 by Stephen Spotswood. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.